A Thai parliamentarian arrested for trespassing in Banteay Meanchey province last week told Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday that he had “unintentionally” crossed into Cambodian territory, his defence lawyer said.
Cambodian lawyer Ros Aun, who is defending Panich Vikitsreth, a lawmaker from Thailand’s ruling Democrat Party, said his client told investigating judge Chang Sinath that he had traveled to the contentious Thai-Cambodian border to meet with Thai villagers who claimed border markers had been moved by Cambodians onto Thai territory.
“He said he crossed the border unintentionally,” Ros Aun said. “His visit to the border area came at the request of the [Thai] villagers.”
Panich was arrested last week along with six other Thais near a military encampment in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district. The group were charged last week with illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base, charges that carry a combined maximum sentence of 18 months in prison.
Ros Aun said yesterday that the investigation remained ongoing despite a day-long questioning session. A trial date in the case has not yet been set.
Arrested along with Panich was Veera Somkwamkid, an activist from Thailand’s “Yellow Shirt” movement who has staged repeated rallies at the border to protest against alleged Cambodian encroachment.
Panich’s claim that he accidentally entered Cambodia is seemingly at odds with statements he reportedly made in a video of his expedition that surfaced in the Thai press this week. In the video, Panich is seen talking on the phone to his secretary, asking that an aide to Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva be informed that the group had crossed into Cambodia.
Abhisit has admitted sending Panich to investigate the border area, but has denied ordering him to enter Cambodia.
The arrests followed several months of relative amicability in the oft-strained relationship between Thailand and Cambodia. In August, the countries normalised ties that had been downgraded in 2009 following Cambodia’s provocative appointment of ousted former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics adviser to the government.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the case was “separate from our diplomatic relations”. He declined to speculate on whether Prime Minister Hun Sen would request pardons for the group following a possible conviction.
“Right now, it’s in the hands of the court,” he said.